Tag Archives: System

Variable Ratio Reinforcement: Gambling for Healthy Habits

10 Apr

via Photocase

In our last post, we discussed some of the best ways to influence our behavior for the better. One of these techniques, Changing the Reward, deals with altering the habit’s consequences. This can be done through punishments or rewards, all seeking to trick the brain into enjoying the activity further. Today’s post will deal with making positive reinforcement as effective as possible.

When behavioral psychologists study the effects of consequences on routines, they have to consider the details of the relationship. Do you reward yourself after a certain amount of time, or after you perform the routine a specific number of times? Do you have to make sure it’s exactly the same every time, or is some variation okay? While they found a near infinite number of these “reinforcement schedules,” they decided they can be classified into four major categories. These can be shown on a 2×2 matrix, with one axis reflecting whether the reward is based on an amount of time or a number of performances, and the other representing whether the reward is absolutely certain or not.

Schedule Matrix

If we look at these four possibilities, we can start to see where natural patterns in our lives fall in these categories. Fixed Interval is the most common: whenever we see an hourly pay rate, we see a certain reward based on an amount of time. Whenever a salesman is given a commission for every nth sale, a Fixed Ratio schedule is at work. Variable Interval is the least common, and even less useful: perhaps when a son is given a pay rate for mowing the lawn, and the time is approximated, this schedule is at work. However, the real strength lies in the bottom-left quadrant, an area not found in nature, except for one place: gambling.

The Magic of the Variable Ratio

Variable Ratio schedules are the most successful possible. It refers to when you may have to perform an activity once, maybe six times, before the reward comes. This category is the most powerful reinforcement schedule in the matrix. When the routine to be performed implies the payment of money, governments make it illegal due to the ease with which the one who controls the rewards can keep the money coming. This schedule can even be addictive in its nature; gambling addiction is one of the most common, and most aren’t even aware that they have them.

The real question is, how can we use this schedule to reinforce our desired habits, or discourage unhealthy ones? The other schedules are already used, with the exception of Variable Interval. Sometimes we decide that after an hour of studying, we can go to a movie; after three conversations with a drifting client, we can buy a treat. But if we remain in the Fixed area of the matrix, we give up the power that lies in the lower left. How can gambling be applied? I would like to propose a solution, utilizing a new system for rewarding the good and punishing the bad: The D20 System.

via ufisk.no

The D20 System

A d20 is a die with twenty sides. While normally used for games such as Dungeons and Dragons, it can be a powerful tool, easily found online or in local gaming stores. Here are the basics for the D20 System:

  1. List the behaviors you want to alter, either by encouraging or discouraging them.
  2. Assign each a number: the lower the number, the easier it is for you to perform a goal. A 3-Goal is a goal you have less trouble with than a 7-Goal.
  3. Find two things: a reward, and an activity you enjoy that you already do.
  4. Whenever you perform a Behavior of Interest, roll the die. If you roll below the number you’ve chosen, do one of two things: if you want to encourage the behavior, give yourself the reward: if you want to discourage the behavior, deny yourself the activity you enjoy as a gentle punishment.
  5. Weekly, review your goals and their rank. If you’re now having an easier time with one of your 9-Goals, move it to a 6-Goal. If you’re having problems with a 2-Goal, make it a 5-Goal. The idea is to eventually wean yourself off of the d20 for goals you no longer need to manipulate.

This system can provide some of the strongest motivation for changing your behaviors. There are only two extra considerations required to help it work. First, resist the temptation to reroll the d20. The entire point is to provide a link between the activity and the variable hope for reward. If you really want that reward, do another one of your Goals, perhaps one with a higher rank to increase your chances.

Premack’s Principle

The next consideration is that of choosing reinforcements. We may have difficulty choosing: “There’s nothing I really want to do that’s actually feasible for a frequent reward.” There is, however, a principle in behavioral psychology, Premack’s Principle, which can open your mind. Simply put, it says that any activity you’d rather be doing can be a reward. If you’re studying, and you find yourself in a twisted way wanting to do dishes as a means of escape, that can be a reward. Anything can be a reward, so long as it’s more desirable than what you’re trying to reinforce.

A reward? Maybe! via Dreamstime.com

In sum, the D20 System can be one of the best tools you can use to motivate yourself. Make it into a game, and your life has just become a powerful, productive casino! Hope you enjoy it, Changemakers: thanks for reading!

How else can we reinforce good habits?

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